The importance of oxygen in human life cannot be overemphasized. Two of the hundreds of functions performed by oxygen in the human body stand out: detoxification and energy production. However, several disorders such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) may impair the lungs’ capacity to effectively assist the body with its needs, because the airway becomes inflamed and thickened with excessive secretions. In situations like this, over the last 40 years, supplemental oxygen has been the gold standard. This use of oxygen as a “drug” is known as oxygen therapy.
How COPD makes Breathing Difficult
When you take in air, it goes through several passages of varying sizes till it gets to the end blood vessels (capillaries) in the small air sacs, where oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide from the bloodstream. Elasticized air sacs in healthy lungs deflate and inflate to make the breathing process go smoothly. The airflow in and out of the lungs becomes strained and shallow in people who have COPD. Due to this constant strain, people with COPD have a harder time taking full breaths.
Can a person with COPD get better? Unfortunately, no. It is an incurable progressive lung disease that gets worse over time leaving an individual with persistently low oxygen saturation. The mainstay of treatment is to support one’s quality of life with oxygen therapy.
Types of Oxygen Delivery Systems for COPD patients
There are several forms of oxygen therapy, each with its pros and cons. Three of which include:
Compressed gas oxygen therapy is the oldest and most well-known method of administering oxygen. It can be used for breathing at home with bigger oxygen tanks or on the go with tiny oxygen tanks. The tank is filled with gaseous oxygen and is meant to provide a continuous flow of oxygen to the user. You connect to these tanks via your nasal cannula and oxygen is delivered to your lungs each time you take a breath. A disadvantage to this is how cumbersome having and moving around with a lot of cylinders is.
Here oxygen is stored in a cold liquid form in a thermo-style container at a temperature of -29 degrees Fahrenheit. An advantage of this is the ease of transferring some liquid oxygen into smaller portable tanks for easy mobility within and outside the home. The disadvantages sadly include a high cost. Liquid oxygen is expensive and difficult for COPD patients on long term oxygen therapy. Another drawback is the risk of sustaining cold injuries during transfer or use.
Oxygen concentrators are smaller, more portable electric oxygen-breathing machines. They can offer an infinite supply of oxygen as long as they have power, making them perfect for oxygen therapy for lung disease. An oxygen concentrator is fairly compact and provides the user with far more independence than other forms of COPD oxygen therapy. The portable oxygen concentrator could be taken on some commercial airplanes; however, you may need an increase in oxygen flow during the flight. Another obvious advantage is the fact that one needs not to carry gas canisters.
What are Portable Oxygen Concentrators (POCs)?
A portable oxygen concentrator is a small device that draws air from the immediate environment and converts it into concentrated oxygen for patients that require supplemental oxygen therapy. While some people move around with tanks of compressed gas, others also on long term oxygen therapy make use of portable oxygen concentrators. POCs can administer oxygen via continuous or pulse flow. There are several models of portable oxygen concentrators on the market. Your choice can be tailored to how much oxygen you need and your budget.
Is Portable Oxygen Therapy Beneficial to all COPD patients?
There have been speculations on the need for all patients with COPD to be on portable oxygen. Undoubtedly, it does help raise their blood oxygen saturation levels, allowing them to breathe better, but it still begged the question, “do patients with moderately low oxygen levels benefit from it like those with severely low oxygen levels?” The largest study was carried out on supplemental oxygen by a team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. No differences were found in survival rate, quality of life, levels of depression or anxiety, ability to walk for short distances or lung function between both groups of patients. But the conclusion was for patients with COPD to always consult with a doctor to review oxygen flow rate depending on their needs at a given time.
Likely Side Effects of Oxygen Therapy in COPD patients
It is important to note that while oxygen therapy could be a lifesaver for patients with chronic lung conditions including COPD, there could be some harmful side effects to watch out for.
- Nasal dryness and skin irritation: COPD oxygen therapy might irritate or dry up your nasal passages. To relieve these symptoms, you could use a saline spray or a moisturizing lotion designed specifically for this.
- Breathing suppression: Oxygen therapy assists the body’s respiratory centers by delivering oxygen directly to the lungs. This process could suppress the natural drive and stimulation to breathe.
- Oxygen toxicity: Oxygen has been referred to as a drug when used in this manner. Patients who are exposed to high oxygen concentrations for long periods, such as preterm babies or patients on ventilators, may develop oxygen poisoning. To successfully improve symptoms, doctors prescribe the lowest therapeutic dose.
Which Oxygen Device is best for COPD?
Quite a few next-gen portable oxygen concentrators are now in market circulation. Their launch from the different manufacturers has created some noise on the market. These are some recommendations for COPD patients (there are others):
- Philips Respironics SimplyGo portable oxygen concentrator
- Inogen One G5 portable oxygen concentrator
- Inogen One G4 portable oxygen concentrator
- Oxlife Freedom portable oxygen concentrator
- Philips Respironics SimplyGo Mini 5 portable oxygen concentrator
How much Oxygen is too much for a patient with COPD?
Only a medical doctor can determine how long and how often your oxygen therapy should be to prevent side effects. The goal is to raise your blood oxygen saturation levels above 90%, however, if you have COPD and utilize oxygen therapy, you may be in danger of hyperoxia (too much oxygen) as well as carbon dioxide retention. As a result, it’s critical that you follow your doctor’s instructions and never change your COPD oxygen therapy without first consulting your doctor.
COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and it drastically reduces one’s quality of life. Oxygen therapy has been presented as a way out, but adapting to its use could be challenging. Finding the right one for you would depend on your needs and your doctor’s recommendation. You do not have to be afraid. Take it a day at a time.